Wednesday Apr. 26, 2017

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At the Station

When the girl got off the train at the college town,
she leapt up and wrapped her legs around the waist
of the boy she’d come to visit, and they spun
around, embracing and shrieking with joy.
Their love set off a piccolo’s vibration.
Those years are gone for us—I see you every day,
we eat meals together from decades-old plates.
But when we lie in bed at night, you take my hand,
and I feel the orb that’s formed around us tighten,
while you and I, like knitting needles in a ball
of yarn, lie beside each other, fingers touching.

“At the Station” by Anya Krugovoy Silver from from nothing. © Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1888). Loos published her novella, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in 1926. The story was based on Loos’s observations of her good friend, the journalist, writer, and scholar H.L. Mencken. She began writing a series of sketches to pass the time on a train from New York to L.A., after she noticed that Mencken and the other men in her party were falling all over themselves to pay attention to a young and attractive blonde passenger. “There was some mystifying difference between us, she later wrote. “Why did she so far outdistance me in feminine allure? Could her power, like that of Samson, have something to do with her hair?” According to Loos, she never really intended to publish the story; she claimed, “My only purpose was to make Henry Mencken laugh, which it did.” But she ended up publishing the sketches of her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, in Harper’s Bazaar in 1925, and they were so popular that she made them into a book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes inspired two movies, a play, and a musical, and it was translated into 14 languages. The philosopher George Santayana called it “the best philosophical work by an American.”

The civilian Basque town of Guernica (pop. 7,000) was bombed on this day in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack was carried out by allied Nazi and Italian planes at the request of Spanish nationalist leader Francisco Franco. Between 170 and 300 civilians were killed in the massacre, which later became the subject of Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting.

It’s the birthday of American comedienne Carol Burnett, born in San Antonio, Texas (1933), whose long-running television show, The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978), introduced audiences to such characters as “Chiquita,” a parody of Spanish singer Charo; the pneumatic, dimwitted secretary Mrs. Wiggins; and “The Charwoman,” a beleaguered cleaning woman with a penchant for breaking into song. The Carol Burnett Show was so popular that Hollywood stars lined up to appear: the show boasted luminaries like Lana Turner, Betty Grable, and Gloria Swanson.

Her parents were performers, but also alcoholics, so Burnett’s childhood was rough. When her parents moved to Hollywood, Burnett’s mother installed her in a one-room apartment with her grandmother, Mabel, who raised Burnett from then on, while her mother lived down the hall, drank, and tried to make it in show business. Mabel wore long johns with a drop-seat, was a notorious hypochondriac, and took Burnett to the movies all the time, sometimes twice a day. Back then, movies were always double features, and only cost 11 cents for Burnett and a quarter for her grandmother, so they ended up seeing four movies a day several times a week.

Burnett thought she might be a playwright, so she enrolled at UCLA, where students in the playwriting program were required to take an acting class. Burnett’s life changed. She had a small role in a production and decided to make the most of it, drawing out her single line to try and get a reaction from the audience. She says: “They laughed and it felt great. All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you’ll hear a laugh that great again.”

After a class performance at a party in Hollywood, Burnett was stuffing cookies in her purse when a man approached her and asked if she wanted to be an actress. When she said yes, he offered her a thousand dollars to go to New York City if she promised to pay it back in a year and then do something nice for someone else if she got famous. Burnett was skeptical, but the man’s wife said he was sincere, and the next day he drew up a contract, and off Burnett went.

She got her first big break in television, acting in a sitcom with Buddy Hackett and on The Garry Moore Show (1959), but it was her appearance as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress — the 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” — that really got her noticed.

Burnett wrote about her childhood in the memoir One More Time (1986). Explaining her determination to succeed as an actress, she said: “There is something about being poor and having alcoholic parents that either poisons you or toughens you for life. I realized it was either sink or swim — get out, or be pulled down.”

At the end of every episode of The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett would tug on her left ear. That was a special sign to her grandmother Mabel that she loved her.

It’s the birthday of the geophysicist and seismologist Charles Richter, born in Overpeck, Ohio (1900). Richter devised the earthquake grading scale that bears his name.

He began as a research assistant to the scientist Beno Gutenberg at Caltech in the early 1930s. At the time, scientists in Southern California wanted to begin producing regular earthquake reports, which required a reliable way to talk about the phenomena. The existing “Mercalli scale” ranked earthquakes by public fear response and building damage — both of which were highly subjective. Richter and Gutenberg developed an absolute measure of earthquake intensity by recording real motion during a seismic event. The Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that each number of magnitude is 10 times stronger than the last. These more precise measurements were important in preventing future deaths.

Richter became so engrossed in his work that he kept a seismograph machine in his living room and made himself available to answer earthquake questions 24/7. He also helped to develop new building codes for earthquake-prone neighborhoods. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Richter scale was replaced by the moment magnitude scale, which measures the size of earthquakes in terms of the energy released. Still, to the public, the Richter scale remains the most recognizable measurement.

There are around 500,000 earthquakes across the world every year, only 100 of which cause damage. Tectonic movement of just seven to eight inches is enough for a major earthquake. The largest recorded earthquake in the world happened in 1960 in Chile, a magnitude of 9.5 on the Richter scale.

Today is the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in the USSR. A flawed reactor design and lax safety standards led to one of the largest nuclear disasters in history, resulting in the evacuation of over 100,000 residents living in and around Chernobyl. Only 300 people refused to move from the area surrounding the plant, now officially known as the “zone of alienation.” Twenty-eight people were killed within a week of the accident by acute radiation poisoning. Experts predict that the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 as cancer cases and other radiation-related illnesses come to light. Today, scientists study the effects of radiation on the local flora and fauna. In 2011, Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction.

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